The More the Merrier? Multiple Parent-Adult Child Relations

By Ward, Russell A.; Spitze, Glenna et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The More the Merrier? Multiple Parent-Adult Child Relations


Ward, Russell A., Spitze, Glenna, Deane, Glenn, Journal of Marriage and Family


Although parent-adult child ties are generally positive, most parents have multiple children whose relations may yield collective ambivalence combining higher and lower quality. Little research has investigated these multiple relations. NSFH respondents aged 50+ with adult children (N = 2,270) are used to assess patterns of quality and contact across multiple children in the same family. This illuminates mixed experiences, especially for lowest quality and contact across children, contributing to collective ambivalence in parent-adult child relations within families. Having more children increases prevalence of both positive and negative relations. Stepchildren exhibit more negative relations than nonstepchildren, even in the same family. Mothers have more positive but not more negative relations than fathers, but mothers have more negative relations with stepchildren.

Key Words: families in middle and later life, intergenerational relations, National Survey of Families and Households, parent-child relations.

Parent-child ties are central and long-lasting, prolonged by increased life expectancy into the later adult years of parents and middle age and beyond for children (Mancini & Blieszner, 1989). Parentchild relations are generally characterized by positive feelings and solidarity (e.g., Bengtson, Biblarz, & Roberts, 2002), and Umberson (1992) has cited the parent-child tie as a particularly strong and unique source of social attachment. Although parent-child relations would seem influential throughout the life course, research summarized in the next section has failed to find a consistent association between parentadult child relations and parent well-being. These inconsistent findings may reflect me mixed quality of those relations, especially when viewed across relations wim multiple children; that is, positive relations with children may be counteracted by negative relations with the same or other children. Research has tended to focus on particular parent-adult child dyads or aggregated measures, instead of viewing parent-adult child relations as a network in which some relations may be more positive and others more negative.

We address the multiple parent-adult child relations experienced by most parents in middle and later life to better describe and understand their textured nature. The concept of intergenerational ambivalence (Luescher & Pillemer, 1998), which has been applied to particular parent-child relations, is extended here to a collective view across multiple children. We look at patterns of collective ambivalence and how they are related to selected predictors that include family structure characteristics (size and presence of a stepchild) and parent gender.

MULTIPLE CHILDREN AND COLLECTIVE AMBIVALENCE

Although parent-adult child relations can be expected to affect parent well-being, recent reviews have concluded that "little is known" about whether adult children affect parent well-being (Knoester, 2003, p. 1431) and that research on whether adult children affect parent distress is "inconclusive" (Weinstein, Glei, Yamazaki, & Ming-Cheng, 2004, p. 512). Research has found no or only weak overall associations between parent well-being and proximity, contact, and support from adult children (Brubaker, 1991; Logan & Spitze, 1996; Suitor & Pillemer, 1987; Ward & Spitze, 1998; Weinstein et al.).

If the parent-adult child tie is a central one, why is evidence of contributions to parent well-being so weak? Although parent-child relations may matter, children (and parents, for that matter) are a "mixed blessing." Parent-adult child relations have been described in generally positive terms, with typically relatively close proximity, frequent contact, emotional closeness, and feelings of normative obligation accompanied by support and advice (Bengtson et al., 2002; Logan & Spitze, 1996; Lye, 1996; Silverstein & Bengtson, 1997; Umberson, 1992). …

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